“In my mind, there isn’t as much distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.” — Abbas Kiarostami
Cinema’s capacity to document the world around us, to faithfully create an indexical record of its spaces and happenings, is a tradition that’s been with us at least since the filmed “actualities” of the Lumière brothers from the late nineteenth century. But almost from cinema’s inception, many people have tried to situate this realist tradition in opposition to the other great function of movies, that of creating fictive dream-worlds, of imposing a personal vision or aesthetic atop this reality (a tradition that’s exemplified by another pioneer of early cinema, Georges Méliès). Even today, we tend to think of “documentary cinema” as being more concerned with the dissemination of information about a particular subject than with the power of moving images and editing.
In my view, this rigid way of thinking about different kinds of movies (some being concerned with reality, others with fantasy or artifice) becomes detrimental to our understanding of the possibilities of film. After all, the pleasures of something like Louis Feuillade’s epic serial Les Vampires (1915-16) lies in the way its pulpy yarn about master criminals, espionage, and paranoia doubles as an invaluable and gorgeous document of Paris in the teens. The films of Roberto Rossellini, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Abbas Kiarostami all strive to break down these distinctions as well, seeking a kind of equilibrium point between the spirits of Lumière and Méliès. And even some overt documentarians such as Frederick Wiseman, whose new film City Hall has been available in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room the past few weeks, are clearly concerned with the formal features of composition and duration, editing, and even performance.
Many of these distortions in our thinking about documentary might be traced back to the “cinéma vérité” movement, which called for a purely observational, fly-on-the-wall model of filmmaking, and was adopted by American directors such as D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, 1967) and David & Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, 1975). While this approach can sometimes be effective, the films of this movement are ultimately only as compelling as the subjects being showcased; no transformation takes place at the level of film form. Much more compelling, in my view, are the commissioned educational shorts made by Alain Resnais at the beginning of his career. These films bring a kind of haunted, nocturnal poetry to potentially banal or commercial subject matter. One such short, Le Chant du Styrene (1958), was commissioned by an industrial plastics company, but Resnais chose to have the voice-over commentary written in a form of rhyming couplets called alexandrines. In its finished form, the film resembles a kind of alien document more than it does an advertisement for plastic.
Jacques Rivette’s magnum opus, the 13-hour serial Out 1 (1971), remains one of the more extreme examples of the dissolution of fiction and documentary in narrative cinema. In 1970, Rivette shot about thirty hours of material with over three dozen actors, allowing all the collaborators to improvise their own dialogue, performances, and narratives, thereby generating the fiction themselves. What emerged was a tale of conspiracies, secret societies, and dueling theater troupes fighting for control of modern-day Paris. Much of the film is dedicated to long extended takes of the theater groups engaged in rehearsals and avant-garde exercises. The film remains an incredible document of a particular moment in the history of European experimental theater and the post-’68 Parisian counterculture as much as it is a compelling and deeply intriguing adventure in multiple narrative threads playing out simultaneously. At the end of this exhilarating, playful, and exhausting work, one might come away with the feeling that the standard barriers we tend to place between storytelling and observation, as well as between illusion and truth, have been all but corroded away before our very eyes.
Today is the last day to rent Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room. The film is part of the International Arthouse Series, and a percentage of the proceeds from this streaming engagement will directly support IU Cinema.
A four-hour, stand-alone cut of Jacques Rivette’s lengthy serial, Out 1: Spectre, was screened at IU Cinema in 2016.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.